It is said in soccer that if the goalie needs to block the ball, that means the rest of the team already failed somewhere else. One can argue the same thing about parenting. By the time the child exhibits strange, abnormal behavior, perhaps it’s too late. But how exactly does a family get to its low point, on the verge of collapse? What exactly did the parents do wrong? For a while, everything seemed normal.
Korean filmmaker Hur Jin-ho explores these ideas in A Normal Family, an adaptation of the Dutch novel The Dinner by Herman Koch. The film opens with a death as a result of road rage – a young reckless man runs over an angry father, crashing into his car and fatally injuring his 8-year old daughter. From this horrific incident, we are introduced to our two families and where their morals lie.
Jae-wan (Sul Kyung-gu) is a successful lawyer who is willing to take on any case, as we see him choose to defend the reckless driver; who we clearly saw hit the father on purpose. His younger brother Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun), on the other hand, is a pediatrician who puts the health of his patients over money. It is he who operates and saves the 8-year old daughter.
Once a month, the brothers would bring their wives to an elaborate expensive dinner to chat about the state of their lives and how their children are doing. It’s a brilliant use of a simple singular location to draw suspense between characters, as we see the screenplay use this dinner a total of three times to help structure its story.
When a terrible incident involving both families’ children is caught on security cameras, parents on both sides argue on what to do about it. How far are we willing to go to protect our children? How much of it can be simply explained away? How much of that protection is for the child as opposed to oneself? Throughout the first half of A Normal Family, it is clear where each character stands and what each of their motivations are, and Jin-ho is smart enough to give every parent plenty of scenes alone so we can see into their point of view.
Kim Hae-ee gives an exceptional performance of the mother on the doctor’s side. She is overprotective of her son, and even when she sees hard solid evidence that it is in fact her son in the security footage, she willfully chooses to ignore it, hoping it would all go away. Claudia Kim, meanwhile, plays a wife and mother in a unique position on the lawyer’s side; she’s not her daughter’s biological mother. Not only do we clearly see the disconnect between mother and daughter on screen, but we can imagine how long that rift has existed long before the events of the film.
As for brothers Jae-wan and Jae-gyu, we can only presume what their childhoods were like, how that must have seeped into the way they raise their own children – from a distance, using only their jobs and wealth to take care of them.
Where A Normal Family takes the next step is when the turning points come. Something changes, or something happens, and they are the perfect catalysts in showing how a person changes their mind on what to do. Like some of the most compelling character arcs in tense dramas, you can visibly see their motivational trajectories cross paths and they end up opposite of where they started, yet still opposite of each other. That’s the tragedy of Jae-wan and Jae-gyu, that a tragedy that’s supposed to unite them only drives them further apart. Though the performances are indeed excellent, and Jin-ho expresses a firm handling of dramatic beats and blocking, it is the screenplay that nails these crucial moments of character.
But perhaps the most upsetting part of the film is it perfectly foreshadows its ending. Long before we learn about the incident involving the children, we can already tell something is absolutely not normal with these people. Unlike the audience, who got to be on the road to witness the tragedy first-hand, both children got to experience it through a video stream, with likes and comments flashing on the side. To them, it’s content. They’re desensitized by an alarming degree. And so how did we get here? Can anything be done to fix it? Make things go back to normal?
A Normal Family is smart enough to not offer pat answers or resolutions. Rather, it is a showcase of how unavoidable its events are. They unfold almost like a Shakespearean tragedy does. All the while, it is a brilliant look at the troubling consequences that come with privilege, how that could set up the next generation into apathy, and how human beings contradict themselves when they see their morals and integrities tested.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.